As military personnel carriers rolled down Cairo’s streets Wednesday afternoon, American officials remained strikingly circumspect, doing little to dispel what became a widespread assumption: Washington was acquiescing to a coup against Egypt’s first freely elected president.
A year ago, U.S. officials hailed the country’s presidential election as a milestone in the Arab world’s most populous country. Just two weeks ago, the U.S. ambassador in Cairo said Washington supported the Muslim Brotherhood-led government and felt it would be unwise for Egyptians to think “street action will produce better results than elections.”
Hours before Egypt’s generals announced that they were appointing a temporary government to replace Mohamed Morsi, however, U.S. officials refrained from publicly calling on the military not to overthrow the Islamist president.
President Obama, in a statement issued Wednesday night after Morsi’s ouster, said that only the people of Egypt can ultimately determine the future of the country. “Nevertheless,” he said, “we are deeply concerned by the decision of the Egyptian Armed Forces to remove [President Morsi] and suspend the Egyptian constitution. I now call on the Egyptian military to move quickly and responsibly to return full authority back to a democratically elected civilian government.”
The president also said he has directed U.S. agencies to review the implications of the military action on U.S. aid to Egypt.
“These situations are very difficult for foreign powers, especially for the U.S.,” said Daniel Serwer, a former U.S. diplomat and a Middle East expert who teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “We must have told the army that we didn’t want to see a coup, but what was really meant was that we didn’t want to see them governing again. All indications are that the army is not going to govern, and I think that’s an outcome Washington can live with.”
Among Islamists who savored Morsi’s victory last year as a turn in fortunes sought for generations, Washington’s perceived complicity elicited wrath.
“Washington, with its lever on the Egyptian army, could stop it, unless they sent a green light for it,” said Islam Abdel-Rahman, a member of the foreign-affairs committee of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. “This is a military coup that was warned about for two days against a democratically elected government.”
The latest chapter in Egypt’s tumultuous transition is certain to have far-reaching implications for the United States, analysts said. A new period of de facto military rule is all but certain to deepen religious and societal fault lines, stoke violence and plunge the country’s ailing economy into a deeper crisis.
The disenfranchisement of Islamists could lead to radicalization in Egypt and the region. U.S. officials have not forgotten that the last time the generals were in charge they made a concerted effort to vilify the United States — and a proverbial “foreign hand” — as the instigators of Egypt’s problems.
As the crisis in Egypt approached a climax this week, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, called his counterpart in Cairo. The Pentagon has declined to provide details about their exchange or say what guidance the U.S. military gave Egypt’s generals about the advisability of overthrowing a democratically elected leader.
A defense official who agreed to describe the call only on the condition of anonymity said the military leaders “discussed the need to protect U.S. citizens and for the Egyptian military to contribute to stability in an appropriate way.”
On Wednesday, the U.S. Embassy in Cairo ordered the evacuation of all personnel deemed nonessential. While the mood in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the anti-Morsi revolt, appeared largely jovial overnight, there were reports of clashes elsewhere in the country.
“We will begin departures immediately, with the expectation that all evacuees will have left for the States by this weekend,” embassy personnel were instructed in an e-mail.
Some U.S. lawmakers were quick to applaud the ouster of Morsi, a hard-line Islamist who has used vitriolic language against Jews and said that he, like many Egyptians, believes the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States were staged in order to justify invading Muslim countries.
“Morsi was an obstacle to the constitutional democracy most Egyptians wanted,” Rep. Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. “I am hopeful that his departure will reopen the path to a better future for Egypt and I encourage the military and all political parties to cooperate in the peaceful establishment of democratic institutions and new elections that lead to an Egypt where minority rights are accepted.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, welcomed the military’s intervention.
“The Egyptian military understands the importance of maintaining peace and stability and I applaud their efforts to assist the people of Egypt during this interim transfer of power,” he said in a statement.
The move may threaten Egypt’s $1.5 billion yearly U.S. aid package, most of which is delivered in the form of military materiel.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who heads the panel that oversees foreign assistance, said he hoped the Egyptian military was sincere in its pledge to run the country only temporarily.
“In the meantime, U.S. aid is cut off when a democratically elected government is deposed by military coup or decree,” he said. “As the world’s oldest democracy, this is a time to reaffirm our commitment to the principle that transfers of power should be by the ballot, not by force of arms.”
Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the change of guard is all but certain to make it harder for the United States to make progress toward its policy goals in Egypt.
“If you have chaos, if you lose a sense of legitimacy in whatever government comes out of this, then almost everything becomes impossible,” she said. “Primarily, bolstering the economy, on which everything else depends.”